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Hey, Bud, What Are You Doing!?

Q.Will the unseasonably warm weather we had in January have an effect on my trees? I think I see some buds actually appearing as if it was spring. Will this cause a problem, and is there anything I can do?

A. Indeed, those few days of unseasonable warmth we had in January may have tricked a few buds into thinking it's spring, but probably not that much. A few years ago we had a similar situation where we hit 60 degrees in January and then went back to our usual winter weather, and nothing bad ensued.

The buds you see were formed last fall, becoming more visible once the old leaves were shed. The leaf buds on our native plants are extremely cold-hardy, and can withstand temperatures as much as 30 to 35 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

If you remember, several years ago we actually had temperatures this cold, and the trees came through in fine fashion. So, as long as the buds remain in the bud stage they're fairly safe from freezing.

It's usually in late winter/early spring (March or April, when we have some warm days but aren't safe from having a frost) that most cold injury occurs, and it's usually flower buds that have begun to open that are most effected. While still in the bud stage, flower buds are pretty cold-hardy, too, but once they've begun to open, their cold-hardiness drops pretty dramatically.

This is particularly noticeable on early-blooming magnolias - if we have a frost once they've begun to bloom, the blossoms turn brown and wither, and that'll be it for the year (for the blooms, not the tree).

Even if leaf buds begin to open and we then have a frost, there's usually not a lot of damage. Buds typically open over a period of time, not all at once, so there can be buds that haven't begun to open at the time of a frost, and then they'll develop normally.

I can only remember one year in the past 25 that we had a really late frost that damaged a lot of trees. However, they all dipped into their "bank account" of stored energy and produced new leaves from latent buds, and they turned out OK. A little stressed, but OK.

So, I wouldn't be too worried if a few buds started to open. It's happened before, and it'll happen again, and there's nothing you need to do about it.

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Tom Mugridge

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